Article: Training for Strongman Stunts With Progressive Overload

Posted: May 13, 2011 in Articles

When we walk into a gym, we don’t load our aspirational weight onto a bar, try it, fail, then say, “I can’t do it.” I hope we don’t anyway. If you want to bench 300, and the most you’ve done is 215, you have to work your way up. You begin with a weight you can handle for a useful number of reps, then gradually increase the resistance. It’s a proven process. Repeated crushing failures don’t really help get you there. Just getting under 300 lbs and getting squished week after week doesn’t seem like much of a plan.

Why, then, do we approach strength stunts in this boneheaded way? If we want to lift a big stone, do we just hunker down and try our best every week or so, hoping that we’ll suddenly be able to do it? Yeah. Maybe. Or, we could be smart and look at all these stunts in the same way as you look at going after a personal best on any lift, and apply some logic to the problem.

The easiest example of this phenomenon is phone book ripping. If your aspiration is to rip a yellowpages of a particular year and city, the process is pretty straightforward. We establish a baseline and slowly work toward our goal. For the training, we’ll need to have as many books of similar size and shape as we can find. From there, we’ll need to see how many pages we can rip. Try dividing an example of the same or similar book into four segments at first. If you can rip those, do it. Think of that as a warm-up. Now try three segments of the same size book. How did that feel? Could you rip those segments, or was it too big a jump?

Using this heuristic, we can establish where we are at in terms of nearness to our goal. If we can rip 500 pages, but not 700, then we know where the path begins. If you can rip 500, do it. Do it a few times a week, until it feels easy, and the rips come fast and clean. Now try 600 and see how that feels. This should all begin to sound pretty familiar.

Now, we are fortunate with phone books, insofar as they are quantifiable, and your tasks are scalable. We can take them part by part, and measure progress by page numbers ripped. Some things are somewhat more difficult to approach. There can be seemingly insurmountable gaps between what you can do and what you hope to be capable of. A great example of this is the Ironmind Red Nail. I could come to grips with the Red Nail and fail to bend it any number of times, and I would likely be no closer to doing anything but springing a tendon in my forearm. I can’t say I have the perfect road to bending the Red Nail, but it offers us a good obstacle to focus on.

If you can bend a 60D nail, but not a Red Nail (many of us are in this group), you need to a) keep bending 60Ds, looking for ways to increase intensity (increased volume, decreased rest, etc.) b) find short steel that is more difficult than the nails but easier than the Red Nail. c) devise support exercises that allow you to train the important muscles in a progressive way.

One of the things that I have done (though not in a while), is to tape 20D nails to a 60D and bend them together. This can be clumsy, but does increase the resistance. When one extra 20D was bending easily, I tried 2 extras. I never quite got a full bend with this, but I bet that if I had, it would have marked an important new personal record for me. My theory is that I won’t be able to bend the Red until I can bend two 60D nails at once. Since I can’t do either of those yet, it’s a long term goal.

You can progressively train most anything. The method might just require some ingenuity on your part. If your stunt is a strictly yes/no proposition, with no way to make it easier during training, you’ll have to isolate what body systems are holding you back, and hit them with the best assistance exercises you can find. You might need to find something similar to your stunt, but within your reach. If your goal is to lift the pen slab in Iceland and carry it once around, you’ll probably need to start with a smaller object. Once you get comfortable with something that weighs 100 lbs, go to something that weighs 125, then higher, then higher. Nobody, regardless of how much spinach they’ve been eating, just hoists a 440 lb stone and walks around with it. Just like no one (except John Brookfield), can just bend the Red Nail upon first examination. We’re mortal, and we need preparation. We need small, chewable bites. The good thing is, we’re also able to adapt, and if we can find a way to bridge the gap between “can’t” and “can” with a logical, safe progression, then we’ve won. I hope you win, kind readers. I hope I do, too.

Stunt Well, Stunt Safely!

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